Especially in a crisis, we must hold space for non political witnesses from every side of the room

Since 1945, Western Europe has enjoyed a holiday from history. That has bred and unearned sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis unluckier people.”

– Simon Kuper, Financial Times 26/27 February, 2022

It should be obvious by now the world is not as comfortable, cosy or as unambiguously predictable as many of us have come to think of it. Even those of us who grew up with conflict in the 70s/80s/90s.

Kuper writes with directness and uncommon appreciation of where we find ourselves. Complacency has grown on us over time, in latter years overwhelming our natural sense of danger.

The hysteria over Trump blinded us to the the fact that in this open, always on digital world to the fact that what a political leader may say is not what journalists are obliged to write down as the truth.

Kuper’s contribution to a Future of Media Commission Dialogue made this clear. If our systems of surveillance and public accountability are breaking it’s because journalists tend to trade truth for access.

Undue weight and influence is given to the new marketeers of social media, so the best spin wins. Our consumption of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is mediated by tweets and FB posts on one side only.

Outside of that we are effectively blind. Our view of the conflict (if not the morality of the invasion itself) is largely viewed from the embedded (ie subjective) view from the Ukrainian side of the ‘argument’.

That cannot be helped, since the Russians would not exactly welcome embedded western journalists with open arms. But we seem largely unaware that this throws a huge penumbra over the rest of the pitch.

Now, I only mention this, not to get into a row about the rights or wrongs of that invasion, but to point out that none of the problems we have in journalism are specific to us. Rather they are structural.

Subjectivity has always played a role in journalism and gathering witnesses to conflict or controversy remains key. But the immersive nature of social media blinds us to the need to trawl more widely.

Closer to home, a much respected and at times courageous columnist Justine McCarthy yesterday forthrightly accused RTÉ of being biased against Sinn Féin over a recent Claire Byrne Live programme.

She first cites what I guess can be seen as an obvious example of RTÉ bias against the party from the 2020 election campaign…

…RTE’s initial decision during the last general election campaign to exclude McDonald from the televised leaders’ debate, thus turning it into a head-to-head contest between Martin and Varadkar as the only two with the potential to become taoiseach.

At the time Fianna Fail was on 25 per cent support, according to one poll, with Fine Gael on 23 per cent and Sinn Fein lying third at 21 per cent. This contrasted with RTE’s three-way leaders’ debate for the 2011 election, when the third participant, the Labour Party, was on just 19 per cent in the polls.

It is reasonable to assume that Sinn Fein’s subsequent emergence as the biggest vote-getter in the 2020 election was attributable, in part, to the perception of bias against it. Being the underdog suits a party that wants to project itself as being outside the establishment but which, in reality, is far less radical than it claims to be.

Hard to argue with that in retrospect although I guess in fairness to RTÉ opinion polls are not necessarily an indication of actual strength at the polls (look at Irish Labour’s rating during 2011?).

But I part with Justine’s analysis in her argument that those journalists who remain critical of Sinn Féin (and, in the south, there’s not many left) should rebalance since they’re losing their younger audience…

Sinn Fein is caught in its own Catch-22 dilemma. It would be damned by core supporters if it denounced the IRA violence unleashed during the Troubles, and it’s damned if it does not do so by a news media operating on the assumption that there cannot be a whit of justification for the IRA’s lethal campaign.

Many people working in the largely middle-class trade of journalism covered tragedies perpetrated during the Troubles and still find Sinn Fein’s past role as the IRA’s political wing utterly repugnant. Furthermore, they cannot understand how any reasonable person could think otherwise.

But there is another view, and it is strongly held within Sinn Fein, that IRA violence was a response to institutional discrimination against nationalists in Northern Ireland. By continually demanding that senior Sinn Fein members make full admissions of regret and contrition for what the IRA did, the media is flogging a dead horse, and thereby losing credibility with its audience.

Now, I agree, it is not up to journalists to keep demanding apologies from any politician (though in a world were subjectivity has become dominant some do seem to believe that this is their actual job).

It’s a particularly odd tick given that such demands are rarely issued by Sinn Féin’s own political opponents. But from any objective point of view, Sinn Féin is an oddity (see the latest TD resignation?).

The party’s old favourite talking point (which it rarely uses in Northern Ireland any more) that they took to the gun to address discrimination in jobs simply doesn’t stand up to any measure of reasonable force.

It’s a story you have to tell when the leaders of your own movement sent so many young men and women not simply to death and imprisonment but to be the agents of the death and misery of countless others.

Until it reverse ferreted on its previous position (below) on Russian violation of Ukrainian territory and called for the sacking of the Russian Ambassador (in pursuit of those changing mores of its audience):

But fundamentally endorsement of the movement’s past violence is not binding upon anyone who lives outside that particular moral matrix, whatever modern digital audiences may think about the matter.

Kuper’s signal advice is to spend less time listening to what politicians of any stripe say and pay more attention to experts and ordinary people who live beyond the bubble of political discourse.

As for the RTÉ show, it was not particularly biased for or against SF but rather a continuity of a recent habit of sitting with the audience rather than engaging a conversation in order to probe complex issues.

It is by now an ingrained habit triggered about the time of the shock of the 2008 crash and seen in the demise of the Q&A Programme that was swapped for the far more confrontational Front Line format.

In the theatre-in-the-round of this digital world, we need witnesses to be respectfully heard from all four sides of the room not just the one or two privileged voices who have the influence to dominate a story.

Opening and then holding such civil spaces is far more important now than it has been for most of our lives, now that we know for sure that nothing (especially not our democracies) can be taken for granted.

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